The Sublime Light Art of James Turrell

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Nearly 50 years into his career, several major museum retrospectives introduced the pioneering light and space artist to a wider audience in 2013.

I first became familiar with the work of light and space artist James Turrell this past June when my wife and I were on a quick visit to New York. We happened to be in town on the only night of the year when the Guggenheim Museum is free, and the featured exhibit was a retrospective of Turrell that sounded fascinating. Unfortunately for us, a good portion of New York seemed to have the same idea, and the huge crowd and long lines meant the Guggenheim rotunda and Turrell’s latest work, Aten Reign, were off limits.

Ever since that trip, I’ve been seeing Turrell’s name pop up everywhere. Through a recent article by Lisa Gimmy in Landscape Architecture Magazine (September 2013), I learned that Turrell celebrated his 70th birthday on May 6, which explained to me why retrospectives of his near 50-year career have been so prevalent in museums across the globe in 2013. And as luck would have it, the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas—just a five-minute drive from our house—is one of those museums, so my wife and I were finally able to experience his work firsthand earlier this month.

The Spencer exhibit includes a selection of Turrell’s interesting hologram art, but the centerpiece is Gard Blue (1968)—a pivotal early work that marked the beginning of Turrell’s experimentation with immersive light installations that have been called “perceptual cells.” A small dark room that’s bathed in the soft light produced by the glow of a bright blue triangle in the corner, Gard Blue is both a fascinating demonstration of how light manipulates perception, as well as an example of how we respond emotionally to specific light. As we stood just inside the doorway to the room, the combination of silence and calming blue glow invited contemplation and introspection. My wife summed it up well when she whispered to me, “It’s soothing. I could see myself sitting in here for a long time.”

As impressive as Gard Blue and Turrell’s other works are, though, the capstone of his accomplished career is still taking shape in Arizona’s Painted Desert. Since 1974, Turrell has been using the remnants of an extinct volcano called Roden Crater to build an intricate and awe-inspiring open-eye observatory. Everything about this project is epic, from the sheer scale of the piece to the complexity. As Gimmy writes in LAM:

“When complete, it will contain 20 chambers with different viewing experiences. Its complexity is on par with the most complicated landscape projects of any age. Turrell has accounted for the shifting of the planet in his calculations for the design. In 2,000 years, the project will no longer be precisely oriented to the astronomical events it seeks to capture.”

As 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Turrell’s acquisition of Roden Crater and the project inches closer to completion, I’m sure there will be many more opportunities for people to discover the subtle yet powerful work of this pioneering light and space artist. I, for one, plan on taking advantage of Gard Blue’s presence in my own backyard many more times before the Spencer exhibit ends next May. 

If you’d like to learn more about Turrell or Roden Crater, there are plenty of great sources out there, but I think this PBS documentary from 2010 is as good a place as any to start:

Above image:  Gard Blue (1968), James Turrell. Photo by Christian Williams.

Christian Williams is the editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at

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